We broke the story for you a few weeks back at the ABC Kids Expo.  Graco is releasing their first All-In-One carseat, the Graco Smart Seat.  This week, Graco released some additional information at a product launch event.  Unfortunately, no photos or video were allowed, but they did provide some more stock photos.  We hope to have a full review for you within the next few months.  Until then, here are some talking points to tide you over until the Smart Seat appears on shelves at Babies R Us in early 2011.  Yes, I have some measurements and some information from the manual, too, some of which I already posted on the forums and FacebookThe manual was a final draft and the evaluation models were late prototypes.  While they should be representative of the final retail product, changes are still likely. So, please be aware that any information below is still preliminary!

Stay-In-Car Smart Base:  Similar to an infant carrier, there is a unique, wide base that installs with LATCH or seat belt.  Then, you can remove the seat and turn it around and put it back in the base.  You don’t have to uninstall anything from your vehicle to switch from rear-facing to front-facing or back.  The base is not used for booster mode.  Though the base is wide overall, the LATCH and seatbelt routing path inside the base is relatively narrow, making installations fairly easy in the various vehicles we had available.  The base also includes a seatbelt lockoff, like those Graco uses on some infant seat bases.

Rear Facing:  5 to 40 pounds.  I measured the minimum harness strap height to be about 8.5″.  The manual says that the harness straps must be at or below the level of the child’s shoulders, so that will probably restrict it from being used with small newborns and many preemies.  On the plus side, the manual also says that the Smart Seat may be used rear-facing until the top of the child’s head is 1″ from the top of the adjustable head support.  Though you may only use the lowest three head support positions when rear-facing, that still gives you an inch or two more height above the top of the shell that should accommodate a seated torso height of almost 23 inches (if I measured correctly)!

Forward facing: 20 to 65 pounds.  I measured the top harness strap height setting to be just over 17.5″.  That is pretty typical of taller convertible seats and even some combination boosters.  While many kids will reach this height limit well before they reach 65 pounds, it should get the vast majority of kids to the point to where they can be seated safely in booster mode.

Other measurements:  The Smart Seat is even wider between the armrests than the Nautilus, about 13.5 inches.  The seat depth is a bit shorter than the Nautilus, just over 12″ deep.  The crotch strap has 2 settings that are about 4.25″ and 6″, somewhat closer than the Nautilus for older kids, but much better for rear-facing babies and toddlers.  The head rest is a bit narrower than the one on the Nautilus, tapering from just under 10″ wide down to 7″ at the back.  The side torso wings are relatively wide, about 14 to 15″.

Other features:

  • Rear-facing level indicator
  • On-the-go 5-position recline works when installed
  • Infant insert (optional, rear-facing only)
  • Single, integrated cup holder (right)
  • Flip-up armrests (right)

Likes:

  • The rear-facing height limit I mentioned should allow most kids to reach that 40 pound rear-facing weight limit.  Kudos to Graco for allowing the head support to count for this limit, even if only in the bottom three adjustment positions!
  • Conversion to booster mode is relatively easy.  You do have to remove the crotch strap by slipping a metal tab through the base like in many combination seats, but then you just buckle the crotch strap to the harness, open the cover and stow it all in a handy compartment (right).  The harness straps remain intact and it converts back just as easily.
  • Life span is 10 years.  Though it won’t fit smaller newborns and may not be tall enough in booster mode for many kids to pass the 5-step test, for some kids it could well be the only seat they need and it will last long enough to do it.
  • Recline is built into the seat, is easy to adjust when installed and should allow for the correct rear-facing angle in most vehicles.  I spent some extra time to try it in the third row of a new Dodge Grand Caravan that has a very sloped seat cushion and it just made it within the level indicator on the maximum recline setting.  So, I anticipate that the base will allow for enough recline in most vehicles.  This is important because rolled towels and noodles are not recommended.
  • The base is relatively easy to install with seatbelt or LATCH, due to the narrow belt path.  It also gives you a great angle to tighten the LATCH strap.  It even fit in the center of the middle seat in the third row of the Dodge minivan and left just enough room for two adults on each side (but barely enough!).  Extra bases cost $99 for a second vehicle.
  • One hand harness height adjustment works very nicely, without any re-threading of straps.  Of the 6 positions, the shortest three may be used rear-facing.  The tallest four may be used front-facing.  (The 3rd setting can be used front- or rear-facing).
  • For a 65 pound-rated harness seat, making sure it is locked into the base is essential.  You can confirm this three ways.  First, the recline knob shows the locked and unlocked position.  Second, an indicator on each side, under the knob, turns from yellow to gray when locked (right).  Finally, when it is not locked, two visible red plastic arms stick up into the seating area as a warning and they also make it very uncomfortable for the child.

 

Dislikes: (To be fair, we saw only prototypes that were manufactured in China, so some concerns may be being addressed)

  • The LATCH attachments are basic (but heavy duty) hooks.  The short strap made reaching anchors difficult in some vehicles.   Combined with a single tilt-lock adjuster, the hooks can also be very difficult to release in some cases.  Longer straps and IMMI push-button release connectors with an adjuster on each side would have been very handy, especially given the upscale nature of the Smart Seat.
  • The knob that you use to lock the seat into the base was difficult to lock and unlock on the prototype.  It sounded like this was being improved.
  • The outer crotch strap setting will be tight on older kids

Other comments:

  • Shell and base are re-inforced with steel (right).  Granted, this is probably necessary for a detachable design that goes to 65 pounds with the harness.  The four locking pins are beefy, one-half inch diameter steel bars that lock into a slot in the base that is reinforced by a 1/16″ steel plate.
  • Won’t fit smaller newborns and preemies, though this is true of most convertibles.  But, the harness slots don’t go much lower on the lone all-in-one model on our recommended carseats list either.
  • Would have liked to have seen higher minimum weights (or ages) on front-facing and booster mode, since this seat provides safer alternatives for kids at the threshold.
  • Seat is big, wide and heavy.  Granted, there really is no way around this for an all-in-one seat with a steel-reinforced shell.  It probably won’t work well next to other wide seats or in a 3-across setup in narrower vehicles.  In smaller cars, it may not fit at all when rear facing and reclined.  At the very least it will probably compromise front seat legroom.
  • Seatbelt must be used for installation beyond 48 pounds, unless LATCH system is specified to higher weight limits in the vehicle owners manual.
  • It would be nice for an additional, more upright setting to be allowed rear-facing for older children, perhaps with a dual level indicator as found on some newer infant seats.
  • The harness strap covers aren’t particularly long compared to other seats, but they are quite thick as they have a stiff foam pad inside.  They are required when rear-facing and may not be used beyond 40 pounds.  I had the impression these may be needed to improve the safety of the seat in terms of test performance.
  • Can’t use top tether in booster mode.
  • In booster mode, the Smart Seat must not hang over the vehicle seat cushion.  Also, in booster mode, it may not be installed where a vehicle head restraint pushes the Smart Seat forward, creating a gap between the smart seat and the vehicle seat back.  The Graco Nautilus has the same restrictions.  Note, these restrictions do not apply when using the base (harness mode).
  • Booster mode goes from 30-100 pounds and up to 57″ tall.
  • EPS energy absorbing foam in head restraint and also in the torso wings.
  • May install in seating positions with LATCH even if the anchors are spaced wider than the 11″ standard, as long as the vehicle manufacturer allows it.
  • Graco touts that all their seats (except backless boosters) must pass their proprietary side impact testing.  In addition, they test all seats to the most severe NCAP test pulse (about twice the peak force of the 213 standard pulse).  Finally, they test all seats to the 213 standard at extreme hot and cold temperatures, using the highest weight occupant dummy.
  • The Graco “Signature Series” Smart Seat All-In-One will be exclusive to Babies R Us, at least initially.  Retail prices begin at $299.

Overall, the Smart Seat looks to be a very innovative all-in-one child restraint with a very unique base system.  Of course, we reserve judgment until we try a production retail model with some real children, but the prototype I saw looks to be competent in all three modes of operation!

Thank you to Graco and staff for the great launch event!  For sake of disclosure, Graco did pay for all expenses for the trip but otherwise did not provide any content or payment for this first look review (other than the stock photography).